The city of Waregem was created in 1977 when 4 towns long attached to their specificity were forced to merge (Beveren, Desselgem, Sint-Eloois-Vivje and Waregem), and it was only in the early 21st century that Belgium acknowledged it as a full-fledged city. The name Waregem, meaning territory of the Waro clan, is mentioned as far back as 826 AD, and people were already settled there at the time of the Franks.
Football fans know Waregem long had a team in the Belgian first division. Under its new or older name, Waregem won two Belgian Cups, in 1972 and 2006.
Waregem is also known as a horse racing town, most notably for the Waregem Koerse, a steeplechase event run at Gaverbeek racetrack on the Tuesday following the last Sunday in August. Numerous festivities take place the preceding week.
Waregem is also the hometown of former tennis player Dick Norman.
Every year, Waregem stages the semi-classic Across Flanders, a showcase for the greatest Belgian sprinters: Rick Van Steenbergen, Johan Museeuw, three-time winner Walter Planckaert and Tom Boonen this year. The town also held the 1957 World Championships, when Van Steenbergen won his third and final rainbow jersey, beating out Louison Bobet and perennial podium finisher André Darrigade.
Avelgem is the birthplace of Belgian rider Marc Demeyer, winner of two Tour de France stages, in Belfort in 1978 and Evian in 1979. He also won the overall intermediate sprints standings in 1973 and 1975. Demeyer ran in six Tours de France, and his most famous achievement was his victory in the 1976 Paris-Roubaix. He spent most of his career with the Flandria Team and died of a heart attack at the age of 32. His first ever victory had come close to home, in the 1972 Across Belgium.
The town’s church, of Scaldian Gothic style, has been dedicated since the 15th century to St Christopher, patron saint of motorists. A pilgrimage has been held there since 1924, with car blessings.
Should Clovis have ridden a bicycle, the Tour de France would probably have finished in Tournai, as this was France’s first capital. A former roman town (Tornacum), Tournai was conquered by the Franks in 432 and became their capital until 486 when Clovis transferred the seat of power to Paris. In 1653, the tomb of Clovis’ father, Childeric, was discovered near the river Escault. It now lays in St Brice church.
Tournai is one of Belgium’s finest sites. Its most splendid treasures are undoubtedly the Notre-Dame Cathedral, a mixture of gothic and Romanesque architectures, and the belfry, both Unesco World Heritage Sites. In the Cathedral can be admired the Shrine of Our Flemish Lady, a 12th-century reliquary which is a testimony of the town’s prosperity in the Middle Ages.
The Grand Place (main square) and picturesque 13th-century Pont des Trous (Bridge of Holes), the only bridge to have been spared by the Germans during World War I, are also quite remarkable.
Tournai was the birthplace of major primitive Flemish painters, the likes of Robert Campin, Jacques Daret and Roger van der Weyden.
No Belgian cycling fan is about to forget Luc Varenne, one of RTBF’s great voices. His passionate commentaries and old timer’s fecundity made him a unique figure in sports reporting. He covered 30 Tours de France and was one of Eddy Merckx’s staunchest supporters. Deeply attached to his native Tournai, he passed away in 2002.
Tournai was also the birthplace of cycling and flying pioneer Hélène Dutrieu, nicknamed “the human arrow”, who set the first ever hour record by a woman in 1895.
If you’re after a rejuvenating experience in northern France, Saint-Amand-les-Eaux is the place to go. In fact, it is the only French thermal spa north of Paris. Its thermal tradition dates back to Roman times but it was Louis XIV who, while campaigning in Hainaut, decided to carry out work to capture the waters which gurgled out of the earth (hence dubbed the Gurgling Fountain).
Rich in sulphur, Saint-Amand’s water is recommended for respiratory and rheumatic ailments.
Celebrities born in the town include the Resistance member Louise de Bettignies, the physician Casimir Davaine and judo champion Cécile Nowak.
The town held a Tour de France stage finish in 1978, won by Jacques Esclassan, winner that year of a second stage in Toulouse. The Frenchman had won the green jersey in 1977, but in 78 he was beaten out by Belgian Freddy Maertens.
Saint-Amand is also a regular fixture of the four Days of Dunkirk.
For cycling fans, the name of Wallers is first and foremost attached to the treacherous Wallers-Aremberg trench, the most famous cobblestoned portion of Paris-Roubaix, where many a race has been won or lost. In fact called the “Drève des Boules d’Hérin”, this straight cobblestoned path of some 2.4 km has been included in the Paris-Roubaix itinerary since 1968.
The history of Wallers is linked to the region’s several waves of industrialization. The growth of coal mining, first in Lambrecht (1879), then in Arenberg (1899), caused the town’s population to rise more than three-fold until the Arenberg pit closed in 1989.
In 1992, the shooting of Claude Berri’s Germinal, starring Renaud, Gerard Depardieu and Miou-Miou, breathed new life to the former mining town. After sets were taken down, former miners, who had been used mostly in non-speaking parts, decided to open a center to rekindle the memory of this lost culture. A permanent exhibit is open to visitors.
In less than a century, coal and steel transformed this rural village along the river Escaut into a major industrial center of northern France. It was in Denain that writer Émile Zola came to do his research for his famous novel Germinal and it was here that Usinor, France’s leading steel manufacturer, was based before being dismantled in 1986.
Denain has always been a basketball town. Its team won the French championship in 1965. Denain is the hometown of Valéry Demory, former playmaker of Pau-Orthez and Limoges, and it was here that started out Hervé Dubuisson, the Ironman of French basketball, as he played for 25 years, netting nearly 12,500 points.
In 2007 was run the 48th Denain Grand Prix, won by Sébastien Chavanel. Ever since Irishman Sean Elliott in 1959, the race has crowned many of the pack’s top sprinters.
Since the 11th century, Solesmes has kept up a tradition which some riders might do well to follow, that of the “seringueux” (or “syringed”, with a pun on “gueux” which means “beggar”). Every year, on Shrove Tuesday, the inhabitants take out huge syringes filled with… two litres of water and splash each other merrily. Only the elderly and the handicapped are spared. Some 800 “seringueux” roam the streets, filling their syringes at tubs set up in front of homes. It is thought the tradition recalls an incident when local peasants fought off the men of the local lords trying to take away their land, by splashing them with water from the Béart, the river which rises in Solesmes. In 1909, local authorities sought to prevent the festivities and the inhabitants greeted the police by hitting them with the syringes. The ensuing riot made one casualty.
Whatever may be its glorious past, caught up in the disputes between the abbeys of Maroilles and Cateau, and the countless bloody wars which brought grief to its population throughout the centuries, a cycling fan’s interest for Fontaine-au-Bois lies elsewhere. As everyone surely knows, it is the hometown of Jean-Marie Leblanc who, this year, will for the first time get to see the Tour ride through his village as a spectator, having handed the reins to Christian Prudhomme. Surely the Tour will duly honour this former rider and journalist who had overseen the Tour since 1989.
Jean-Marie Leblanc has been elected to the Fontaine-au-Bois city council, being in charge of exterior relations. As such, he wouldn’t forgive us should we fail to mention a few of Fontaine’s monuments: the 15th-century washhouse and St Rémy church, with arrow slits as it also served as a fortress, invasions being so frequent.
The word Picardy comes from a nickname long ago, when Parisians dubbed the peasants north of the Île de France “Picards” because they worked with pickaxes. Picard is also a regional language that reached its climax in the 13th century but is still spoken today. The region, which includes three departments, the Aisne, Oise and Somme, has been French since 843, but parts of it have belonged to Spain, the Duchy of Champagne, the counts of Flanders and the Dukes of Burgundy.
Picardy, a traditionally agricultural region with beautiful forests and a lovely coastline (Somme Bay), was hard hit by the world wars (Battle of the Somme). The area’s industry has gradually declined, especially in Saint-Quentin, but many Île-de-France residents in search of nature and countryside have moved to the Oise.
The Aisne, which lies at the crossroads of the Île de France, Champagne, Nord and Ardennes, is formed by a silt-laden plateau stretching from the Brie to Thiérache. Criss-crossed by the Aisne, Oise and Marne Valleys, it is conducive to extensive agriculture and a major wheat and sugarbeet-growing area. Industry is concentrated in the Oise Valley (metallurgy, glass and chemicals) and Saint-Quentin (textiles). The department was the theatre of bloody fighting during World War I (Chemin des Dames between Soissons and Craonne, etc.).
District capitals: Château-Thierry, Saint-Quentin, Soissons and Vervins.
The fortress overlooking the town, greatly damaged during World War I, is a reminder of the splendour of the Guise, once a very powerful family and amongst the staunchest partisans of Catholicism during the wars of religion.
However, it was at the foot of this castle that was born, on March 2, 1760, one of the fiercest adversaries of the monarchy, the lawyer and journalist Camille Desmoulins. An ally of Robespierre, he voted for the death of Louis XVI and was himself guillotined, along with Danton, in 1794.
Less famous though as much a militant, industrialist Godin, founder of the company which builds the stoves and chimneys still bearing his name, founded a worker’s commune in Guise. Inspired by the works of political thinker Fourier, the Guise Familistère was an imposing brick structure, with 500 flats equipped with the most modern facilities. Ironically, the housing estate lost its humanist basis in 1968, year of all utopias, when the apartments were sold off to individual homeowners.
Ribemont is the birthplace of Condorcet, a mathematician and philosopher whose political ideas greatly influenced the development of France’s democratic institutions. For the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989, his remains were symbolically moved to the Pantheon. But when his presumed coffin was opened, it turned out to be empty.
The name Saint Gobain has become synonymous with glassmaking in France, and the glass company that Colbert founded here in 1665 has become one of the leading French industrial groups.
Numerous buildings are left recalling the town’s long tradition of glassmaking, such as the buildings and chapel of the former Royal works, the monumental gate of the glass factory (work of Soufflot), the Charles Fontaine Glassworks (15th century) and the vestiges of the castle.
Martial Gayant, the Tour’s yellow jersey in 1987 and today sports director at La Française des Jeux team, is from Chauny, around 10 kilometres away.
The Oise, one of France’s main agricultural regions, straddles the far north of the Île de France and the far south of Picardy. It is home to large grain and sugarbeet farms, whereas cattle are raised in the Thelle area. The Oise has witnessed many major historic events, from Joan of Arc’s arrest in Compiègne to the signing of the 1918 armistice in Rethondes. It is also famous for its chateaus (Compiègne, Chantilly and Pierrefonds) and forests (Chantilly, Compiègne, Ermenonville and Halatte).
Unlike Picardy’s other departments, the Oise has seen its population swell with an influx of Île de France residents escaping from the city.
District capitals: Compiègne, Clermont and Senlis.
For the past 30 years, Compiègne has been the starting point of Paris-Roubaix, but oddly enough it has been 25 years since the Tour last paid it a visit. This oversight will be put right this year, what’s more with a stage finish to bring some novelty to a town more used to starting lines.
It seems quite fitting that Compiègne should be the starting point for Paris-Roubaix, as its Latin name “Compendium” meant “shortcut”, because of a ford on the river Oise which helped save a lot of time. The departure from Compiègne has also served to make the “Enfer du Nord” race a little less infernally long.
Taking a shortcut of our own, let’s evoke darker hours for which Compiègne was an unwilling stage.
Compiègne also has the sad privilege of witnessing some of the most tragic and crucial events in French history. In recent times, there was Adolf HitlerŠs macabre staging: to clearly underline the parallel with the German rendition at the end of World War I, aboard a train car in Rethondes Forest, situated within Compiègne’s territory, he recorded the cynical staging of the French capitulation of 1940, a handshake with Marshall Pétain, once again in Compiègne.
Fortunately, the town has also seen happier days. To begin with, Charles the Bald masterminded its development, notably building the Notre-Dame Basilica with Aachen’s chapel as model.
Later on came Louis XV who fell in love with the site and the forest, while discovering them as a youth. He renovated the chateau as we know it, built the large avenues and the great stables which later became the stud farm, and brought with him the aristocrats who built the townhouses which are so much a part of Compiègne’s charm.
Napoleon III and empress Eugénie also appreciated the town, as well as the verdant splendours of Pierrefonds chateau.
In 1900, Compiègne staged the golf competition of the Paris Olympics.
Since 1977, Paris-Roubaix has started in Compiègne. Only once previously did a Tour de France stage finish in Compiègne, in 1980. Stage 6 had set off from Lille and was won by Frenchman Jean-Louis Gauthier. Belgian Rudy Pevenage wore the yellow jersey, with Bernard Hinault lurking in third place. However, the Badger was to drop out later on, paving the way for Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk to win his only Tour in 17 attempts.